Popular Espionage

The Folly of Polygraphy

Aldrich Ames
Aldrich Ames
Aldrich Hazen Ames, born May 26, 1941, is a former Central Intelligence Agency counter-intelligence officer and analyst, who, in 1994, was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia. | Photo: Associated Press | Aldrich Ames, Jeanne Vertefeuille, Cia, Spy, Mole, Central Intelligence Agency,

How polygraphs are killing good stories and stopping good spies.

Aldrich Ames, a former CIA officer who became one of the highest level spies to hand secrets to the Soviet Union, once remarked that "the U.S. is, so far as I know, the only nation which places such extensive reliance on the polygraph....It has gotten us into a lot of trouble." He could have easily included the media in that indictment, since they present the polygraph as a tool for detecting lies instead of the coin flip described by former CIA polygrapher John F. Sullivan who noted that "...an honest subject has no better chance than a dishonest subject of getting through the process."

Most people in both the public sector and the Intelligence Community have misconceived ideas of what the polygraph is and what it does, but this misconception has infected nearly everyone in show business. They think of the polygraph as a lie detector, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. A polygraph measures physical responses to stress, which reviewers then assert are "patterns indicative of deception." This could actually be a useful tool for both interrogators and story-tellers if it were used to identify areas for further investigation, and not with the mindset that it can detect lies or that the subject can pass it or fail it.

In the words of one of the pioneers of polygraphy, as it's currently used it's "nothing more than a psychological third-degree aimed at extorting a confession as the old physical beatings were." Examiners convince the subject the polygraph is a valid lie detector and then use that belief to coerce confessions out of them. This might sound like an effective tool for weeding out analysts who've made the mistake of hiding their past, but it's powerless against someone who's actually attempting to penetrate an agency. Everyone else has the same chances of passing as they would if it were decided on a coin flip.

When Hollywood perpetuates the lie of the perfect lie detector, they rob themselves of interesting stories, interesting conflict and even interesting dialogue. When Agents of SHIELD hyped up their perfect lie detector, the situation wasn't resolved through a race against the clock, clever characterization or a dogged investigation, it was resolved because the person giving polygraph decided to firmly grab hold of the proverbial idiot ball. This is the what the "lie detector" has become in the media: a plot device that runs on idiocy and/or contrived coincidences. It's become an excuse for bad writing.

This, unfortunately, is the same attitude that can be found in the Intelligence Community. The sentiment was summed up perfectly by President Nixon when he said "I don't know anything about polygraphs, and I don't know how accurate they are, but I know they'll scare the hell out of people." As much criticism as Hollywood deserves for holding onto the concept of the "lie detector", the true blame lies with the Intelligence Community for holding onto these beliefs.

Despite warnings from former CIA directors who have called the reliance on polygraphs "truly insane", from CIA polygraphers that "polygraph is more art than science, and unless an admission is obtained, the final determination is frequently what we refer to as a scientific wild-ass guess" and notes from the FBI Laboratory Division that the polygraph is no more reliable than "astrology or tea-reading", the U.S. Intelligence Community continues to rely on a system that has consistently let spies like Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Edward Snowden through the cracks.

Really, the only question is whether Hollywood or Washington will abandon this insanity first.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 11:59 AM EDT | More details

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